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Infinity Blade for iOS: A beautiful garden with very high walls

Note: Infinity Blade is now available on the US App Store.

Opinions on Epic Games' Infinity Blade will likely be divided among two camps: those who played through Epic Citadel, and those who didn't. If you skipped out on Epic Citadel, then Epic Games' newest roleplaying game will likely blow you away. Infinity Blade has, hands down, the best graphics I've ever seen on an iPhone. However, if you played around with Epic Citadel a few months back, that demo may have given you expectations for what Infinity Blade would turn out to be, ... and depending on your expectations, Infinity Blade may be infinitely disappointing.

Before diving into the game's features, here's some broader info about it. For a cost of US$5.99, Infinity Blade will run on the 3rd and 4th generation iPod touch, the iPhone 3GS, the iPhone 4 and the iPad. Earlier iOS devices like the iPhone 3G, if they're even capable of running the game at all, will likely have such low frame rates that playing the game would be torture.

There's no separate "HD" version for the iPad, which is an admirable move by Epic Games; the company could have easily charged a 150-200 percent markup for an iPad version like other studios, but Infinity Blade is a universal app. It also comes with Game Center integration, with 48 possible achievements and leaderboards for stats like total number of enemies killed, player level and total gold earned. According to Epic Games, a future update will even bring some multiplayer action into the game.

If all of that sounds good to you so far, you're probably halfway to buying Infinity Blade already. I'm certainly not going to discourage you from doing so, but before you click that "Buy App" button in iTunes, it's probably a good idea for you to click "Read More" and find out what you're in for. Especially if you played through Epic Citadel, Infinity Blade may not be exactly what you expect.

Graphics

Might as well get this out of the way: Infinity Blade's graphics are gorgeous. Like the earlier Epic Citadel, Infinity Blade runs on the Unreal 3 engine, the same game engine powering many of the most graphically-rich video games on current-gen consoles like the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3. Epic has been working on getting Unreal 3 working on iOS for a while now, and the results are nothing less than stunning. The level of graphical detail present in Infinity Blade on an iPhone 4's Retina Display goes far beyond anything I've seen in other games on the platform, and it boasts textures and polygon counts that appear to exceed the in-game graphics capabilities of the PlayStation 2 or Nintendo Wii. On an iPhone 4, there's virtually no graphical slowdown at all, even during intense battle sequences; things may be different on older hardware like the iPhone 3GS, but current-gen hardware handles the game's graphics with a crispness and fluidity that has to be seen to be believed.

Come back with your shield, or on it

Even if you played through Epic Citadel and gawked at the graphics present in that game, you'll still find plenty to drool over in Infinity Blade now that there's living, breathing creatures inhabiting the game's world (or infesting it, depending on your point of view). On top of the incredibly detailed environments and the appropriately moody lighting, the game's various monsters are rendered with a mind-boggling amount of depth, with musculature that ripples as they move, visibly chinked armor and skin textures so detailed you can see scars from wounds earned in earlier battles.

Back when I first roamed through Epic Citadel, I kept marveling aloud to myself, "I can't believe this is running on a phone." My wife was less impressed at the time, probably because there was nothing to do in Epic Citadel other than walk around. One brief look at Infinity Blade, and she was saying the same thing with the same tone of excited disbelief: "I can't believe this is running on a phone." A friend of ours who'd never heard of Infinity Blade or experienced much iPhone gaming at all saw the game running on my iPhone 4 and spontaneously uttered a disbelieving profanity. At least as far as the graphics are concerned, if Infinity Blade is representative of what a studio can accomplish in iOS, then the platform has a very bright future in gaming.

Gameplay

Now comes the part where disappointment may set in for some gamers. Epic Citadel was a free-roaming environment with controls reminiscent of first-person shooters -- one virtual control stick moved you, and the other let you look around. If you were expecting that same degree of freedom in Infinity Blade, your opinion of the game may sour very quickly when you discover that the gameplay is "on rails." Aside from a very limited ability to look around yourself in whatever environment you may be in at the time, you have very little control over your character's movements. Where Epic Citadel was 100 percent exploration, Infinity Blade offers very little in terms of real exploration and plays more like a series of battles chained together by brief cinematics.

What is your name? What is your quest? What is the capital of Assyria?

Considering that Epic Citadel was nearly 130MB for a relatively small environment with no characters and limited interactivity, it's not particularly surprising that Infinity Blade sacrificed the free-form exploratory mode of Epic Citadel in order to squeeze the game into roughly 320MB, but it is still somewhat disappointing. Without being able to freely explore the world, Infinity Blade winds up feeling like a beautiful garden with very high walls.

Battles with Infinity Blade's monsters feel appropriately epic at first, but after a while, they start to feel like "much of a muchness." Each battle with each gargantuan fiend plays out the way a boss fight would in any other game, with parries, dodges and blocks all critical to your success. Rather than whittling away at hit points like you would with rank-and-file "cannon fodder" monsters (none of which are present in this game), you must instead perform taps and swipes on the device's screen and wait for a "break" of some sort to occur. Once this "break" happens, the monster's defenses are down, and you can go on the offensive, dishing out pain via combo attacks, magical strikes and so forth.

While the first 20 or so battles felt exciting, after a while I started to feel bogged down. I wasn't kidding when I said every single creature encounter in the game feels like a boss battle; picture playing a game like Final Fantasy with no smaller, "level-building" monsters, and that'll give you some idea of what you're in for with Infinity Blade. On top of that, the control scheme for executing battle commands is a bit imprecise. Even after playing through the storyline five times, I still haven't figured out how to carry off the "parry" command with any guarantee of success, and controls for dodging or blocking aren't much better.

That's not to say these battles aren't fun -- they are, for the most part. Taking down these big monsters is very satisfying, especially with the soundtrack kicking into high gear when their health meters get low and their attacks become both more vicious and more desperate.

"Drop your weapon. You have 20 seconds to comply."

Leveling up happens in the standard RPG fashion and was very reminiscent of Hero of Sparta; not only does your character level up, your weapons, armor and other items do as well. There are no bonuses to the items themselves when they're "mastered," but mastering an item does give you bonus points, which you can assign to your health, attack, shield or magic stats. You can purchase new items between battles, assuming you have the cash for them -- some items are so expensive that you may have to play through the entire game multiple times in order to afford just one of the highest-level weapons or armors. Purchasing new items (or finding them in treasure chests) is very satisfying, not only for the abilities and stats you'll earn but also for the way your character's appearance changes. Each weapon, shield, armor and helmet looks markedly different, and by the time you've earned all of the items, you can make your character look as gallant or evil as you like.


Storyline

(Spoilers ahead: skip this section if you don't want to read story spoilers for this or any other game)

Infinity Blade starts with a pretty standard storyline: the God King lives in the Dark Citadel, and he's generally evil. Our hero (that's you) must valiantly battle through his minions and defeat the God King himself. The twist is this: on your first playthrough, and likely several more, your quest is doomed to fail. You'll defeat the God King's minions with relative ease, because their levels are loosely tied to yours, but the God King lives up to his name; he starts at level 50 on the first playthrough and stays there. You will almost certainly die in your first encounter with the God King, at which point you'll go right back to the beginning of the game for the second "bloodline," where the son of the first playthrough's character vows revenge and follows in his father's footsteps (with all of his items and experience points, meaning each "bloodline" gets stronger).

This story mechanic reminded me a lot of how Square Enix's Chaos Rings used multiple playthroughs to pad out what otherwise would have been a short game. While you can reach the God King in about an hour or so on your first playthrough, it'll take multiple "bloodlines" before your character is finally strong enough to defeat him. Amusingly, each "bloodline" begins the same way, with your character standing at the entrance to the Citadel vowing to avenge his father; you'd think after a few generations this family would learn its lesson and just move to a kingdom with less evil rather than marching off to slaughter at the Dark Citadel every 20 years or so.

Hello. My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father ... and his father before him ... and his father before him ... and his father before him ... and his father before him. Prepare to die.

The "bloodline" mechanic is an interesting twist on the RPG storyline. It's undoubtedly Epic's way of making the game long enough to satisfy people who've paid six bucks for it while simultaneously keeping the file size within a manageable limit. That said, after playing through the same environment with the same enemies five times before I was strong enough to put the God King in his place, Infinity Blade was starting to wear a little thin. The ending itself was a bit of a head-scratcher, too, and after the credits rolled I had the sixth "bloodline" vowing vengeance yet again. "Vengeance for what?" I wondered. "Didn't I just win?"

Verdict

In all, I think Epic may have kept Infinity Blade too small to satisfy more hardcore gamers. While it's every bit as beautiful as Epic Citadel before it, the inability to freely explore the game world was a letdown, and the gameplay itself is somewhat limited in scope, too. If you come into Infinity Blade expecting a fully-fledged RPG experience, you will likely find the game dissatisfying. Many aspects of the game feel as though they've been compromised in the name of a smaller file size and earlier release date, so while what's present in the game is indeed very beautiful to behold, it's very likely you'll be left wanting more.

Fortunately, in addition to multiplayer, Epic Games has stated that future updates will introduce more enemies, more items and even more areas. As long as these updates come for free, or at most for a reasonable in-app purchase price, Infinity Blade has promise that goes beyond its currently stunted scope.

Though I've been critical of some facets of Infinity Blade, the game is still worth its asking price just for the "wow" factor of the graphics. Even though the game feels like only part of a much larger, as-yet-unreleased game, the price seems to reflect that; at one-tenth the cost of a console RPG, Infinity Blade's worth it just to be able to see what happens when Apple's current iOS hardware is pushed to its limits.

For a 1.0 release the game feels remarkably polished, so really my criticisms boil down to this: I like Infinity Blade, but I wish there was more of it.



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Gaming iPhone

Note: Infinity Blade is now available on the US App Store. Opinions on Epic Games' Infinity Blade will likely be divided among two camps:...